REALTORS® can work with their local associations to help promote affordable housing in their communities, said a panel of local REALTOR® association leaders. Speaking at the National Association of REALTORS®’ Idea Exchange webinar “Make the Case for Affordability,” the panelists shared their experiences advocating for affordable housing with the aim of expanding the range of local housing choices and revitalizing area economies.
“We wanted to bring everyone into the discussion,” said Perry Eskridge of the “Bellingham for Everyone” project that the Whatcom County Association of REALTORS® in Bellingham, Wash., participated in through the Whatcom Housing Alliance. Eskridge, CEO and government affairs director for WCAR, used a Housing Opportunity Grant, provided by NAR, to support the project, which aims to increase the amount of housing available, improve walkability, and support a growing population and area businesses. The project committed to three goals:
- Education, which was provided through videos, “coffee time” discussions, and fun activities like a zoning scavenger hunt;
- Technical assistance, which included a homeowners’ guide to building an accessory dwelling unit and navigating the complex permitting process that surrounds ADUs; and
- Advocacy, which included two big victories: successfully lobbying the city to reduce area residential and multifamily districts from 34 down to 3, and changing the definition of the term “family” to more inclusive.
“Bellingham had an archaic definition of family, restricting it to marriage and blood relations,” said Eskridge. “It was creating a problem for people trying to rent homes and buy in the city.”
Connor Miller, government affairs director of the Aspire North REALTORS® in Traverse City, Mich., said a recent study shows that his city is also in need of more affordable housing to support a growing population. The 2019 Northwest Michigan Target Market Analysis study showed that the area would need an additional 10,880 rental units and 4,660 single-family homes to support growth through 2025. However, all indicators demonstrated that supply was likely to fall woefully short. Miller made use of a Housing Opportunity Grant to support the Homes for our Future project, which includes a broad coalition of local government, area employers, and community stakeholders with the goal of making the area “housing ready.” Readiness involves housing assessments, zoning policies, affordable housing incentives, increasing property inventory, and developing partnership opportunities. In addition, the project developed a local housing advocacy handout, housing resources for local businesses, and proposed zoning changes for housing.
Community involvement is key, Miller stated. “The best advocates are the members of the community themselves,” said Miller, adding that fostering attainable housing is “a multiyear effort. Give it time and let it build.”
Robert Procter, government affairs director for the REALTORS® Association of South Central Wisconsin, used one of NAR’s Consumer Advocacy Outreach Grants to focus on a similar housing problem. Procter noted that Dane County was falling behind in its housing supply and would need an additional 2,000 units each year to keep pace. He noted further that the county’s apartment vacancy rate is a low 3% and that single-family homes only last on the market for 30 days. RASCW, he said, would prefer to see that number bumped up to 60 days.
The association turned to the grant to get the word out about the tight state of housing inventory, using the funds to support the “Afford a Future: Dane County” project, which promotes safe and affordable housing in the county. The grant enabled the project to run ads in local newspapers and to run a digital marketing campaign that garnered over 120,000 impressions in September. The grant also allowed the project to speak to area “nimbyism.”
When a new development is proposed, Procter said, neighbors tend to oppose it. “You have to talk to the business community,” Procter explained. “In order to get new business, you need the housing first.”
Jennifer Sunstrom, government affairs director at the REALTORS® Association of Northeast Wisconsin, also made use of a Consumer Advocacy Outreach Grant to go to bat for changing the comprehensive plan and zoning in the town of Greenville to allow for greater housing choice and affordability options. Proposed changes included approving smaller lot sizes, more flexibility in development, and a more predictable and efficient approval process. The campaign, dubbed “Green with Envy,” made use of ads in prominent community magazines, digital ads, and direct mailing to area business leaders and company human resource departments.
Sunstrom said that the positive slant of the campaign, which congratulated the town of Greenville for its willingness to make changes, was a departure from their earlier, more confrontational campaigns. “We worked to build a better relationship and create momentum,” said Sunstrom. “We wanted the town board to be a partner.”
A recording of the webinar is available at the REALTOR® Party website.